The Typographer's Dream at Portland Center Stage

"Now you're being the geographer."

This is the kind of thing the hubs and I have been saying to each other since we saw The Typographer's Dream at Portland Center Stage the other night.

The play opens with three professionals at a table, apparently sitting on a panel. They've got their bottled waters and bags, and they squirm and primp with all the nervous energy of speakers getting ready to make a presentation.   

We never know exactly what this is. Is the purpose of the panel to enlighten potential candidates at a career fair? Are they part of a company-wide project to determine job satisfaction?

All we get are their ad lib presentations as they verbally step over each other to explain their jobs. The first is a geographer, the second a stenographer, and the third, a typographer.

Spoiler alert. The beauty of this show is really in the unfolding of each character. It takes place in one scene, with no stunning costumes, special effects, or plot twists. Knowing each character's strengths and weaknesses at the outset would've taken away the magic for me. But I'm going to babble on, geographer-like, anyway.

Because the geographer (Laura Faye Smith) hogs the spotlight. When she wants to provide even more emphasis, she pulls out visual aids. "Choke point," is her first chart. As she blabs, she expounds how geography is all about relationships, borders, politics, land formations. It's so much more than "social studies." Her sneer at that word is hilarious.

The language is rich with hidden meanings, pure delight. 

The stenographer (Kelsey Tyler) hesitates, but gathers momentum as he speaks. He talks about what you do in stenography, and what skills you need. He shares what it means when you listen to other people all day long. Yes, "you." More on that in a moment.

The typographer is the last to get a word in edgewise. Sharonlee McLean, my favorite PCS actor, is a beautiful master at crafting body language and voice to fit the character. Her stenographer has the careful manner of a perfectionist who needs quiet and clarity before she speaks. "We have only these few small elements," she says, deliberate with each word.

The pressure mounts when the geographer interrupts her again. The typographer looks like she's about to blow a gasket. 

Meanwhile, the long-winded geographer yaps on and on, wordy and bubbly.

The scene takes us deeper and deeper into each worker's hangups. That stenographer who can only describe things in terms of what "you" do. He can't formulate his own desires, needs, or identity. His faltering relationships and his need to fix others serve as evidence.

One by one, we find out each character's issues - with life itself - and these issues seem to unconsciously stem from the work they do. Or vice versa.

Does the job make the human, or does the human make the job?

Each worker asserts loving the work. Lists the needed skills. Explains the career choice.

The typographer gets more and more uncomfortable. We realize it's not just outward pressure, but  inner discontent. She taps and squirms. Finally she blurts out, "I'm not my job!"

The geographer reacts. She tells the typographer what she should do.

Of course, the geographer knows everything about maps and borders. Or does she? Does she truly understand where one border ends and another begins?

The typographer blurts back,"Stay on your side of the fence!"

The typographer flounders in her need to tell us why her work is so incredibly important. "Someone chose that type," she tells us. "It didn't just happen."

There is a moment when her tidy assertions give way to wide-eyed, dreamy musing. She lets go of control and divulges a secret. She tells how, once, she created. She envisioned new things; she stepped outside the constraints of tools and typeface.

That moment, for me, shows that we can always go beyond "the job." We can find a spark of our inner nature that feeds creativity and joy.

"Because it doesn't make any sense not to like your job," says the stenographer. "Right?"

The Typographer's Dream invites us to examine how personal weaknesses have drawn us to our particular careers. It challenges to be honest and notice where our identities bleed into career and home and self.

Why does it seem a taboo in our culture to admit not being happy in our work? Perhaps it's because deep down we really think we are defaulting on our very souls.

We can understand that no, we're not our jobs, but yes, we need to be who we are, integrating work and life as much as we can.

Maybe we need a little geography to help us map out where we belong, some stenography to capture the truth, and a handful of typography letters to set down our stories for what they are, right there in black and white.

Write about:

Do your strengths on the job ever hamper your personal life? How?

Are you happy with your work? Are you letting the real, creative you, show up? 

What was the most important thing you learned in social studies? (Kidding!) 

In what ways are you your job? How are you not your job? 

Images: Thank you to Patrick Weishampel

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